BP Gets Social Media Right -- Everything Else Wrong

oil/twitter whale

At the beginning of May, I took a look at BP's social media strategy (or rather at the empty space where it should have been) as it struggled to contain and counteract the very negative PR fallout from the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. I also solicited ideas from readers about potential social media strategies the stricken energy giant might employ towards this end. Now, over a month and a half later, it seems BP finally has a substantial social media strategy in place -- just as all its other damage-control efforts have gone off the rails. And while it's just more misery for BP's PR folks, this ironic situation provides an interesting case study of the relationship between social media and other media channels -- and how much social media success depends on these external factors.

First, I should recognize the social media achievement: After a period of curious passivity (for example ceding Twitter to a satirical poster, @BPGlobalPR, who flayed the company daily, and continues to do so) BP finally managed to create a dedicated microsite for the oil spill cleanup operations, hosted on the company's main Web site. This is important because it allows BP's PR team to present the kind of crafted messages that were missing from the more technical, nuts-and-bolts site maintained by the joint response team, including the Coast Guard and other concerned agencies. These messages allow the company to present a more human face -- expressions of regret, plans for relief to inhabitants of the Gulf region, and so on. There are also regular multimedia updates on the site via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr.

As the social media strategy finally takes flight, however, it's becoming increasingly clear that no amount of Tweeting or YouTubing can fix the basic problem: BP's bosses, who seem hellbent on embodying the stereotype of the venal, uncaring corporate overlords. Even their attempts to express determination or sympathy somehow come out wrong, from CEO Tony Hayward's plaintive wish to get his life back (yacht racing, etc.) to chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg's feudal concern for the serfs -- sorry, "small people."

Some commentators have gone for the hackneyed cultural explanation -- different emotional styles in Europe vs. America -- but that's obviously not it: Some of the harshest criticism for Hayward's testimony came from British newspapers, with The Daily Telegraph saying he "looked like a tired undertaker who was rather bored with having to look mournful." No, it seems that BP is just cursed with bosses who are not ready for primetime, or indeed any kind of public interaction. And with corporate leaders unable to execute even the most basic PR maneuvers -- look upset, apologize sincerely, repeat as needed -- there is almost no point in having a social media strategy, or any other kind of media strategy for that matter. Social media campaigns are laborious, time-intensive work. Like an ant colony, myriad individuals slowly build up a communal structure, with progress measured in small increments -- until the giant Italian loafers of the bosses come down and unwittingly demolish the whole thing.

Summing up, social media is just that -- media, a means for conveying content. It cannot substitute for the content itself. It can't, say, transform a gaffe-prone exec into a sparkling public speaker. Even the most brilliant social media strategist can't turn crap into gold. At this point, fixing BP's problems is up to its board of directors; once they get that sorted out, maybe they can use social media to begin repairing the company's image.

7 comments about "BP Gets Social Media Right -- Everything Else Wrong".
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  1. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, June 21, 2010 at 2:37 p.m.

    This is now the 5th article on this I have commented on the subject. BP fails with Social. They did not leave ONE spot for comments or engagement on their propaganda microsite. If you wish to state they are doing better with PR that is fine. But social media. Coughs. The fact they bought the keywords from Google and everyone knows about it shows its PR not social they are scrambling for. They really need to have upper management charged with murder over the mass genocide of the animals.

    I don't care about the people. They voted for anti-environment, greedy state and federal representatives so they earned this. Sorry to be cold about it.

  2. len stein, June 21, 2010 at 2:41 p.m.

    when a company is hell-bent on cost-cutting procedures, even in the riskiest of businesses, you cannot expect any honest signs of expiation. It is simply not in their DNA, and so they are doomed... don't expect the torrent of gaffs to subside anytime soon.

  3. Kristin Warner from FirePath Communications, June 21, 2010 at 2:52 p.m.

    An excellent post! Loved the quote about the ant colony. I've had a client come to me with a request for a "one month social media campaign" to raise awareness through Facebook and Twitter accounts that have been dead for over 9 months. I think some companies assume social media is something that can be switched on and off, like Adwords. When, oh when, will these companies start listening to their social media people who know how this medium really works?

  4. Tara Coomans from Akamai Marketing, June 21, 2010 at 3:08 p.m.

    Great commentary, spot on. Social media is a tool in the arsenal, not a panacea and it doesn't work in a vacuum. As businesses begin to make public mistakes, the more other businesses will learn.

    But importantly, commenter Howie G has it right - the biggest failure of BP is the total and complete lack of conversation, social interaction. Without a two way conversation, you might as well just blast commercials and advertisements.

  5. Rick Short from INDIUM CORPORATION, June 21, 2010 at 4:05 p.m.

    I’m trying to imagine the chapters in this looming and (eventually) voluminous Marketing Communications case study. So far, I’ve come up with:

    • Communication’s role in the crisis management
    • Value preservation
    • Cultural sensitivity, awareness, compatibility
    • Communications technology types and capabilities
    • Scenario planning, training, and rehearsals
    • Crisis planning
    • Public relations infrastructure and relationships
    • Benchmarking & best practices
    • Roles
    • Brand in a crisis: SWOT (what the market does and does not give you)
    • Rules of engagement: who, what, where, when, how, why
    • Proactivity & control
    • Timing
    • Media relations
    • Dealing with reality
    • Honesty, integrity, transparency
    • Regulatory issues

    Your thoughts? Ideas?

  6. Jason Dojc from Edelman, June 21, 2010 at 4:40 p.m.

    So in the end, content is still king.

  7. Bryan Lavin from Providence Warwick CVB, June 23, 2010 at 4:28 p.m.

    Excellent post Erik! BP's response to this crisis has been sub par on almost all levels...but they are really lagging in the social media department.

    In looking at BP's response strictly from a social media standpoint (not wanting to comment on how awful everything else has been with them), I feel like they missed the boat completely...or the boat is just sinking deeper and deeper. In the first days of the spill, there was little to no recoginition or commenting on social media sites from the company. Now they are active on twitter...which helps, but the stream really only relays corporate messaging. As the issue progressed and solutions kept failing, there was nothing available from the company at all in terms of legitimate social media response. Sure, they created a Facebook page and have began to tweet, but as Howie G states it above, there is no real "social" aspect there. No place for comments, interaction, and more importantly, is only messages that have been tailered by the company's PR team.

    If BP had really hit the mark on Social Media it would mean they would have to be sincere about stopping the spill and supporting the millions of effected lives (including the animals). As a news source, I'd say they hit the mark...but the boat is continuing to sink in the social media space.

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